Black women and girls are never allowed to just be. While their white peers are allowed to exist in the comfort of their own homes, have non-fatal run-ins with police officers, and experience mental illness without being racially criminalized for it, Black women and girls are not afforded these same privileges. Breonna Taylor is the most recent, glaring example of this truth. But her story of injustice and tragedy at the hands of police officers wasn’t the first.
In May 2018, 36-year-old Somali American Shukri Said was fatally shot by Atlanta police officers while she was experiencing hallucinations during a schizophrenic episode. Her sister made it clear to 911 that Said was mentally ill. Instead of fulfilling their duty as officers to protect Said and provide her with the mental health support that she needed, Atlanta police officers murdered her.
The police killing of Said begs a very crucial question—if police are a threat to the safety and lives of Black women and girls, then who are they supposed to call for help? The infuriating and awful truth is that Black women and girls have few options because institutions in America were not built to protect and serve them. They continue to be subjected to racial and gender-based violence at the hands of white people and even non-Black people of color through anti-Black health care, political, and legal systems. These systems, which have failed Black women since 1619, are the same systems that failed Said in 2018.
Too often, stories like Said’s are overlooked or ignored. To ensure that the experiences of women and girls of color are known and addressed, YWCA USA put together We Still Deserve Safety, a compilation of untold stories of criminalization, gross brutality, and violence against women of color.
Violence against Black women and girls is not only physical. The erasure of Black women and girls’ narratives from media coverage, formal research settings, and policy priorities only exacerbates the abuse that they experience. For instance, Said was Black, a woman, an immigrant, and Muslim. This means that Said could very well have experienced racism, sexism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia all at the same time.
Intersectionality, a term coined by #SayHerName founder Kimberlé Crenshaw, is crucial because it expands racial and gendered narratives to ensure that the experiences of Black women and girls are known and addressed. We all have a responsibility to be intersectional. The media should highlight the myriad of ways in which Black women and girls are uniquely harmed by disparities in school discipline and incarceration and police practices. During our everyday conversations and organizing, we must be cognizant of the crossroads at which Black women and girls stand and intentional about including them in our activism.
Raising awareness about their experiences is a critical first step, but it is meaningless if our policymakers fail to enact legislation that ensures justice and safety for Black women and girls. Said’s story may have ended differently if police officers were trained by healthcare professionals on how to respond to mental health crises, and even accompanied by them when responding to crises like hers. However, these trainings are currently optional. And at the Johns Creek Police Department (the police department responsible for Said’s death), only 23% of the 75 officers are certified crisis intervention officers. That is simply not enough. The fact that policymakers have refused to swiftly pass federal legislation that requires mandatory crisis intervention training is a systemic failure that, like so many others, disproportionately endangers Black women and girls.
Trainings alone won’t save and protect Black lives. Policymakers at all levels must protect women and girls of color by declaring racism and police violence a public health crisis. We also need legislation to hold police officers accountable. Black women and girls are only 13% of the female population in the United States but account for 33% of all women shot to death by the police. Furthermore, Black women are dying in high numbers in police custody as a result of neglect, denial of medical care, and use of force. When politicians refuse to enact and enforce legislation, policies, and standards of conduct to end police violence, they are complicit.
But overlooking and ignoring the experiences of Black women and girls is more than just our failure to be intersectional. Erasure is criminalizing who Black women and girls are at their very core. Said’s identities shouldn’t have even been marginalized in the first place. If we are to protect Black women and girls, we must actively celebrate and affirm the beauty of their identities. How can we do that? The United States Senate should follow the House of Representatives by passing the Crown Act, which would protect Black women and girls from facing hair discrimination in the workplace and at school. Educators need to stop viewing Black girls as “angry” and “stubborn” and suspending them at higher rates than “girls of any other race or ethnicity, and most boys.”
Building a world where Black women and girls are safe, protected, and loved is not an option; it is a must. It is not impossible; it is well within our reach. We have to eradicate our own anti-Blackness. Because when Black women and girls call us for help, we need to do more than just pick up the phone. We need to answer their call.